A year or so ago, I got this e-mail from a student:
I am extremely conscerned [sic] after taking the first exam online because I didn’t even come close to finishing it on time and ended up with a 56 as a grade. I have attended every single class, paid attention, and felt like I understood the material so I don’t understand how this grade is possible for me. I am also conscerned [sic] because I only got a 50 on the 2nd post. This means my average is extremely low and in a class that I feel I have put a lot of effort into.”
This e-mail is illustrative of the two different “logics” that order the actions of students and professors.
Professors, by and large, organize their thoughts and actions based upon the logic of learning. Meaning, they understand the process of education to be one of inquiry, discovery, and intellectual growth. According to this logic, the goal is to construct an environment that affords students the best opportunities to learn as much about the given topic as possible. Success is measured qualitatively, through the type of questions asked and the amount of interest in the course. The means through which a course is produced (the lesson plan) matter more than the ends of the course (the grades). The question that must be answered: what did my students learn?
Students, by and large, organize their thoughts and actions based upon the logic of earning. Meaning, they see the process of education not unlike that of a job, where tasks are completed and rewards are given based upon the completion of those tasks. According to this logic, a student’s goal is to earn the highest grade possible. Success is measured quantitatively, in grades. The ends of the course (the grade) matter more than the means through which the course is produced (the lesson plan). The question that must be answered: what is going to be on the test?
These two logics are often at odds, as one can earn without learning, and learn without earning. In my opinion there is a “learning – earning” gap in higher education.
The student above has an earning logic, and using this logic, is justifiably worried. She has followed the rules, been a “good student” and yet, she is not getting the results she expects. She judges the ends of her efforts, the grades, as being unsatisfactory. While it would be nice to learn on her way to a satisfactory grade, the entire endeavor was not worth her time, and inherently unjust.
By contrast, I judge the situation and that student’s performance through a learning logic. I take some justified pleasure in knowing that I was able to get a student to “attend every class” and “pay attention”. I judge my efforts as being wholly satisfactory. While it would be nice for every student to receive a satisfactory grade, the entire process was worthwhile, and the end result was just.
I’ve just presented two idealized thought processes. Of course students want to learn and professors are aware that grades matter. These two ideal types only function as a heuristic.
The reality is more complex. A “good” professor organizes his class so that students can be successful – no matter their individual ability levels, while still finding ways to make the lecture more than just test prep. A “good” student gets high marks, but also expresses interest in the material and racks up “participation points”. “Bad” students are those who enter into the class thinking solely about the grade, and “bad” professors are those who are not attuned to the realities of students they are serving.
However the logics are organized, any course will be composed of an assortment of students each falling somewhere on the learning-earning scale – but in the aggregate closer to the earning pole, and a professor falling somewhere on the learning-earning scale, but closer to the learning pole. Thus, there is almost always a learning-earning gap in college classrooms.
I’ve been working on ways to bridge this gap using the digital environment. Let me explain…